The 10 Best Screaming Females Songs

Bob Sweeney

The 10 Best Screaming Females Songs

Bob Sweeney

The shock hasn’t worn off yet. New Jersey rock legends Screaming Females called it quits earlier this week, ending a brilliant 18-year run. The trio of guitarist/vocalist Marissa Paternoster, bassist “King” Mike Abbate, and drummer Jarrett Dougherty started playing together in the New Brunswick DIY scene that orbited Rutgers University in the mid-2000s. They shared basement stages with bands like the Ergs, Hunchback, and Full Of Fancy, and they always kept a foot in that world, even as they became critical darlings and fixtures of the indie-rock touring circuit. Their eclectic annual Garden Party festival in Jersey City became a way of recreating those genre-agnostic bills from New Brunswick’s punk houses, just on a much larger scale. (The Garden Party will outlive the band who started it; a 2024 version headlined by Team Dresch will take place in February.)

Screaming Females – or Screamales, as they were affectionately known by fans – accomplished a lot in their too-short career. They made eight albums together, from the scuzzy punk belter Baby Teeth to the Steve Albini-helmed Ugly to the maximalist double LP All At Once . This year’s swansong, Desire Pathway, was classic Screamales — a sharply observed collection of hooky, nervy rock songs full of ripping guitar solos and hypnotic grooves. Paternoster’s fretboard pyrotechnics and bellowing vocals have always grabbed the headlines, but there’s no Screaming Females without the genius-level interplay between Abbate and Dougherty. I don’t know what precipitated the end of the band, but if they were faced with a choice between making a lineup change and ending things, I’m glad they decided to break up.

As uniformly excellent as their albums are, the real Screaming Females could only be found onstage. They played around 1,500 shows in total, including gigs in all 50 states. (The documentary Screaming Females Do Alaska sees them completing that quest. There’s a scene where Paternoster shreds out a solo while crowd-surfing through an Anchorage dive bar, which I don’t think happens in The Eras Tour or Renaissance.) There’s really no experience in live music that compares to watching a great rock band operating at their peak, and the Screamales operated at theirs for nearly two decades. The way they blasted through their rich, varied set lists – unique every night, scribbled out by Paternoster a few minutes before hitting the stage – always looked effortless. They seemed like they were having so much fun up there. I’ll miss seeing that.

The last time I saw Screaming Females was in August, headlining one of those mixed bills they cut their teeth playing — with the avant-garde cello-and-drums duo Lung, the debauched power-poppers in Vacation, and the Screamales’ Don Giovanni labelmate, singer-songwriter Maura Weaver. The house was packed, and the show felt euphoric, the way all their shows do. I wish I could go back and relive the hour they were up there, doing their thing for what I never imagined would be one of the final times. On Desire Pathway highlight “Let You Go,” Paternoster sings, “Now the stage is empty, and I am too.” Whether or not that line was meant as foreshadowing, it’s now a bittersweet epitaph for one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands in the world. Here are 10 songs I’ll keep coming back to while I mourn. Screamales forever.


"Buried In The Nude" (from Power Move, 2009)

Despite their name, Screaming Females never really screamed all that much. Paternoster’s vocals tend to oscillate between a talky, melodic register and a booming roar, but in the early days, she would sometimes also dip into a venomous hardcore shriek. Take “Buried In The Nude,” the closer from the band’s Don Giovanni debut, Power Move. Paternoster delivers most of the song in a post-punkish monotone, but a few lines come out as throat-flaying screams. The effect is of a kettle reaching its boiling point, pushing out steam when it can no longer bear the pressure. (“Holy wars/ Dark lithium/ WHEN AFFAIRS ARE EXPOSED!“) Paternoster has used that voice sparingly in the years since, but it’s always beneath the surface, ready to be called into action when needed.


"Foul Mouth" (from Baby Teeth, 2006)

Some bands seem to figure it out right away. Like “Black Sabbath” and “Blitzkrieg Bop” before it, “Foul Mouth” is the rare debut-album opener that introduces a fully formed band and establishes the themes they’d riff on for the rest of their career. “Foul Mouth” has everything that makes a great Screaming Females song — a tectonic groove; a stomping, midtempo riff; smeary, abstract lyrics that occasionally pull into vivid focus; a couple of smoldering guitar solos. A lot of the time, Baby Teeth feels like a rough draft for what was to come. But “Foul Mouth” is perfect as it is.


"Brass Bell" (from Desire Pathway, 2023)

“Brass Bell” starts with an extended, slow-building synth riff, introducing Desire Pathway with a sound largely alien to the Screamales’ true-blue rock configuration. (Paternoster’s underrated solo album Peace Meter has a lot more electronic elements, if you’re interested in hearing her voice in that context.) It’s a canny piece of scene-setting for the record; Desire Pathway has a subtly otherworldly feel to it, aided by Matt Bayles’ bold production. “Brass Bell” ultimately blossoms into a crunching riff-rocker with martial, almost metallic vigor. But that synth intro, along with some spacey vocal effects and a mix that swells in intensity as the song reaches its peak, helps “Brass Bell” feel like new ground for the Screamales.


"Hopeless" (from Rose Mountain, 2015)

I firmly believe that a rock band is only as good as its power ballads. Screaming Females don’t crank out the lighters-aloft jams often, but when they do, they can hang with the best of them. “Hopeless” is their finest hour working in that mode. It’s a breakup song addressed to one’s own body, and a plea for mercy in the throes of chronic illness. Paternoster had been sick with mono for a year going into the recording of Rose Mountain, and she pours all the anguish and desperation of that experience into the song’s devastating refrain: “I’m not hopeless, helpless, or begging you to stay/ It’s just turning out that way.” The album version of “Hopeless” builds to a crescendo, with Dougherty and Abbate ushering the song’s simple riff to a powerful conclusion. But the demo that appears that on Singles Too compilation is just as potent. Stripped down to just Paternoster’s vocals and acoustic guitar, the song feels as intimate as anything in the Screamales catalog.


"It All Means Nothing" (from Ugly , 2012)

Ugly marked a turning point for Screaming Females. They recorded the 54-minute behemoth at Electrical Audio with Steve Albini, who helped drag their sound out of the basement and indulged their most experimental tendencies. (“Doom 84” and “It’s Nice” aren’t on this list, but they’re both insane and worthy of an honorable-mention shout.) The band’s level-up was evident straight out of the gates, with the groove-drenched album opener “It All Means Nothing.” Paternoster rips wild leads for much of the song, which means Abbate’s bass holds down most of the riffs. That’s a common dynamic on Screamales songs — especially live, where Abbate is frequently the bassist and rhythm guitarist at the same time. On “It All Means Nothing,” he makes a meal out of a potentially unglamorous role, delivering bass riffs that can stand toe-to-toe with Paternoster’s paroxysms.


"Ornament" (from Desire Pathway, 2023)

It’s impossible to trace Screaming Females’ sound back to a single formative influence. But sometimes, they sound a lot like Dinosaur Jr. “Ornament” is one of those times. The song opens with a wailing guitar solo – a time-honored J. Mascis trick – before settling into a sturdy pocket. It’s not just Paternoster’s shredding that ties Screaming Females to Dino Jr. The Amherst band established a power trio model for indie rock, finding a balance between punk-rock verve and sharp musicianship. Screaming Females follow in those footsteps. “Ornament” always sounds like the work of three people, even as it builds to a heady climax. Everybody has to lock in, but everybody also has to stay loose. A song like “Ornament” makes that sound a lot easier than it is.


"Wishing Well" (from Rose Mountain, 2015)

Screaming Females will probably always be underappreciated as songwriters. That’s what happens when your band plays raucous live shows and boasts an old-school, shred-goddess lead guitarist. But the Screamales’ knack for melody and structure has always been crucial to what they do. Even back on Baby Teeth, they were writing hooks, not just riffs. Their finest moment of pure songcraft is “Wishing Well,” which plays like a lost ’90s alt-rock radio hit. With its wobbly, sunny guitar licks and huge, sugar-rush chorus, the song is uncharacteristically bright for the Screamales. That’s exactly why it works so well. “Wishing Well” wears its melodic sensibility on its sleeve, offering an unvarnished look at the sturdy frame that holds up all the shredding and shouting.


"Rotten Apple" (from Ugly , 2012)

Even on their earliest records, when they were still fundamentally a punk band, the Screamales favored a big-tent interpretation of rock music. That makes the sneering, snotty punk of “Rotten Apple” as precious as gold. It’s still weird and melodic and full of guitar heroics, but it has a casually tossed-off quality that becomes harder to replicate the longer a band sticks together. The thing also just moves, and it remains irreverent and playful for its entire three-minute runtime. Paternoster’s vocal on the self-flagellating chorus sounds like one big ironic eyeroll, but it also shows a range that was beginning to develop new contours. Ugly was a transitional time for the band, and the collision of their DIY instincts and Albini’s pro-studio production is never more thrilling than it is on “Rotten Apple.”


"I'll Make You Sorry" (from All At Once , 2018)

The latent radio-friendly sensibility that “Wishing Well” brought to the surface blossoms into a full-on pop song on “I’ll Make You Sorry” — or at least the Screaming Females version of a pop song. It’s a total blast, balancing the jilted-lover revenge fantasy of its title and chorus with the sweetness of its pop-punk melodies. (I can’t confirm it, but I’m pretty sure Olivia Rodrigo has heard “I’ll Make You Sorry.”) This being Screaming Females, the verses are still laced with abstract poetry, and the song still builds to a muscular and relatively noisy peak. But when Paternoster sings about how she was in love before but she’s given up, it makes me want to roll the windows down and shout along into the night. By my definition, that makes it a pop song.


"Glass House" (from All At Once , 2018)

Marissa Paternoster says the only time she ever weighed in on album sequencing was when she pushed for “Glass House” to lead off All At Once . That gives her a perfect lifetime shooting percentage. “Glass House” is one of the best opening tracks in recent memory, and it’s also the best song Screaming Females ever wrote. It takes its time getting going, spending much of its first two-thirds locked to Abbate’s insistent bass part. Paternoster’s main riff is simple, and it only comes in intermittently, punctuating the bass line. Mostly, she sticks to squiggly little figures that roil beneath her vocals. There’s not even a guitar solo on “Glass House,” which makes me feel insane for calling it the best Screaming Females song.

Instead, it’s all about the crescendo, which takes up the final 70 seconds of the song. “My life in this glass house/ Impossible to get out,” Paternoster sings over and over, with paranoiac intensity. Everything around that refrain steadily gets bigger and louder and denser. Dougherty adds more drums to his insistent, pulsing pattern. The guitars and bass begin to swell and merge into a Sabbathian wall of sound. A cello comes in, just loud and long enough for you to notice it. Claustrophobia starts to set in. The tension finally breaks as the song reaches its final moments, and Paternoster finishes her last repetition of the line a cappella. Only then can you move on and hear the rest of what All At Once has in store. It’s the most exhilarating moment in a discography full of them, and it’s the moment I’ll think about most when I remember this band’s breathtaking power.

Stream the songs as a playlist:

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